Food waste at UK retailers towards near-zero levels

Tackling waste from farm to fork

As public concern about food waste grows, UK retailers like Tesco and Ocado are united in their commitment to eliminating food waste from their operations. They are working together to identify root causes and tackle them across the industry.

This spring online UK grocer Ocado reported ‘near-zero’ levels of food waste in its operations. It was a phenomenal claim that the retailer backed up with data showing just 0.02% of the food it handles goes to waste.

That same month, retail giant Tesco reported it was more than 60% towards its target of ensuring no food fit for human consumption goes to waste in its UK operations. Tesco’s journey began in earnest in 2013, when it set out to lead on reducing food waste in its own business and among its suppliers and customers. “Our main driver is the moral imperative,” says Mark Little, Tesco’s Head of Food Waste. “This is the right thing to tackle because it’s important to our colleagues, our customers, and our suppliers.”

“We need to recognize our shared responsibility”

- Mark Little, Tesco

Tesco consulted key stakeholders in the food waste debate, including government agencies, activists and campaigners such as Tristram Stuart and his organization Feedback. “One message we heard back loud and clear is that we needed to take a farm-to-fork approach, recognizing our shared responsibility and not saying the problem originates elsewhere,” says Little. “The other question we were asked is ‘why are retailers so secretive about the level of food waste in their operations? Why can’t they be more transparent?”

“We measure everything”

In May, Ocado published its food waste data for the first time since it launched in 2000. “We’re a data-driven business and we measure everything, including our food waste,” says Suzanne Westlake, Ocado’s Head of Corporate Responsibility. “It’s that classic consultancy phrase: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Putting in some kind of metric, even if that’s just internal, gives you a baseline from which you can start working.”

Tesco, which first published food waste figures in 2013, agrees that measurement is a must. Over a few months, it calculated the level of food waste in its operations on a product-by-product basis, extrapolating from that an overall figure for UK operations.

“We think it’s important to measure waste at a category level,” says Little. “That way you can see where the hotspots are then take action internally and in partnership with external bodies, like food service redistribution organizations and social enterprises.”

The need for transparency

“We think it’s very important to be transparent,” continues Little. “It’s easier now than it’s ever been because we have the food loss and waste standard, which the World Resources Institute has coordinated, so there’s a standard organizations can follow to calculate their food waste data.”

For Ocado, driving efficiencies in its operations has been key to achieving near-zero levels of food waste. “Our guarantee to customers that we’ll deliver fresh goods with the maximum amount of shelf life possible means we have a self-imposed higher threshold of food waste in our business,” says Westlake. “Our model is based around efficiency and low waste. By continually improving our technology, processes and relationships with suppliers, we’ve been able to reduce our food waste to practically zero.”

“Our model is based around efficiency and low waste”

- Suzanne Westlake, Ocado

Eliminating warehouse waste: Ocado delivers food to customers within five hours of receiving it from suppliers.

Super-efficient supply chain

The online grocer packs each bag of shopping in one of three (soon to be four) high-tech warehouses. This means it can forecast with less risk than a supermarket with hundreds of locations, and creates less opportunity for waste. Ocado gets fresh food out to customers within five hours of receiving it from suppliers, cutting down the waste associated with handling. Furthermore, they keep chilled food cold from the warehouse to the customer’s door, extending the amount of time products remain fresh.

“We’re fortunate in that we have the luxury of knowing what the customer wants in advance,” says Westlake. “Our technology means we can meet our customer expectations for choice with fully stocked shelves.”

Mapping food waste from farm to fork

Tesco has taken a data-driven and cooperative approach to tackling food waste. Little: “We not only published data from our operations, we looked at 25 of our top-selling, widely recognizable products. Then we mapped food waste from farm to fork for those 25 products. The next step was to put an action plan in place.”

In September 2017, Tesco made a joint commitment with 25 of its largest suppliers, which are responsible for more than GBP 18 billion (EUR 20 billion/USD 24 billion) worth of sales, to follow the steps recommended by the Champions 12.3 Group: target, measure and act.

“The Champions 12.3 Group calls on us all to adopt United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 and halve food waste by 2030,” says Little. “We’re working with suppliers to quantify and publish data, act to reduce waste in all our operations, but also to help customers do the same.”

“Customers need educating that food is a valuable commodity”

- Suzanne Westlake, Ocado

Helping consumers drive change

Because much of the food wasted in the UK happens in the home, both Tesco and Ocado are working with waste prevention charity WRAP to help educate consumers.

“I think consumer behavior is at the heart of it,” says Westlake. “If the general populace get behind something, it does tend to drive change. But customers need educating that this is a valuable commodity, not something they can just buy and keep in the fridge in case they might eat it.”

Less food waste through smaller portion sizes, like these tiny avocados at Tesco.

From clever receipts to packaging

“We’re doing what we can to make it easier for consumers,” Westlake continues. “Our receipts are printed out in ‘best before’ date order so customers can see what’s due to go off first. And Ocado has a food waste landing page that provides recipes and hints and tips on using up surplus food.”

Tesco also has a web page dedicated to helping customers reduce their food waste at home and has committed to phasing out its promotions that offer lower prices for buying in bulk.

“We’ve also introduced some innovations in packaging that will help customers keep food fresher for longer,” says Little. “We piloted ‘split packaging’ with fresh chicken fillets and have now rolled the approach out across our entire chicken range in all stores. This means customers can eat a portion of chicken while the remainder is kept sealed in the pack, preserving it for longer.”

“We’ll see a lot more cross-industry cooperation on this issue”

- Mark Little, Tesco

Cross-industry cooperation

Both retailers believe concerted industry action is needed in tandem with changing consumer behavior. “It feels to me there is an industry-wide move to collectively try to sort this out,” says Westlake. “I’ve had more meetings, discussions and workshops about food waste in the last six months than in the last five years.”

For Mark Little, industry cooperation is an important part of Tesco’s approach. “We’re working in partnership with others to develop ways of tackling waste – not only with other retailers, but also with our suppliers. We’ve been clear from the outset that we are open to having conversations with those who want to share our experience, or wish to adopt our measurement techniques or our food surplus redistribution process. I think we’ll see more cross-industry cooperation on this issue in the coming years.”